Chinese Miss World Sparks Debate

For 54 years, the Chinese Communist Party has banned beauty pageants as decadent and demeaning to women. Several years ago, the ban was lifted and this weekend Zhang Zilin, a 23-year-old secretary and part-time model, emerged from more than 100 contestants to become Miss World 2007.

Zhang, a statuesque 6-foot beauty from the industrial city Shijiazhuang, is the first Chinese contestant to win the Miss World pageant since its inception in 1951.

Wearing a sparkling blue evening gown and speaking in halting English, Zhang said, "I'm now standing on the stage of Miss World because 1.3 billion people in China support me."

Going into the competition with home country advantage, she was the overwhelming favorite, eclipsing traditionally popular contestants from the Dominican Republic and Sweden.

"I'm the first Chinese to win the title and more importantly I won in my own country," Zhang said in Sanya, a popular resort on China's Hainan Island, which has hosted Miss World four out of the last five years.

Victory for China

Zhang's victory is seen not only as a victory for her, but also an accomplishment for China. After Zhang's title was announced, her blog was flooded with more than 1 million hits, mostly entries bursting with national pride and delight.

Li Li, manager of a Beijing beauty salon, said, "It is a great honor for China. This is not easy. I hope that she will represent us well."

Zhang's coronation has validated the Chinese government's decision to lift its longtime ban on beauty pageants and welcome the Miss World competition to Sanya.

The Miss World competition is highly profitable for China. Although the government pays the Miss World organization to host the pageant, the event has pushed tourism in Sanya and the island province of Hainan to an all-time high.

In the spring, Sanya's director of tourism announced the city had welcomed more than 16 million tourists annually and experienced an 83 percent increase in international tourists since it first hosted the Miss World pageant in 2003.

Miss World also attracts an estimated television audience of 2 billion, making Miss World one of the most watched events in the world.

Opportunity or Perpetuating Inequality?

Since the government lifted its pageant ban, a wide variety of beauty competitions, ranging from Miss Artificial Beauty for those who have elected to go under the knife to a contest for attractive retirees, has become wildly popular.

China Southern Airlines, one of the country's largest carriers, even created a contest of its own. Its annual recruitment drive was staged as a reality television show that required applicants to be younger than 24, a few inches taller than average and have slender legs. Thousands of earnest young women traveled from every province to line up for just 180 vacancies.

While these competitions create opportunities for any Chinese person who dares to compete, they also have unintended consequences.

As China modernizes, some worry that the focus on physical appearance and beauty, previously considered decadent or bourgeois, sets standards that are unattainable for most young women.

At the same time, despite the growing number of opportunities available to women in China today, many females still feel less valuable in a society that traditionally still prefers to bear sons.

Under the one-child policy, most Chinese families are permitted to have only one child. Adhering to traditional beliefs such as family legacy and financial gain, most parents overwhelmingly still prefer boys. Males still take much more leadership roles and earn higher salaries, even in 2007.

Li Dan, a graduate student at Peking University and one of Zhang's middle school classmates, said, "Favoring of sons [in China] is like Western people's favoring of steak."

"Not everyone [wants it] but most do. It's an issue of tradition so they still prefer sons," she said.

As a result, some argue that contests such as Miss World and China Southern Airlines' recruitment drive overemphasize beauty and severely undermine the already slow progress toward gender equality in China.

Zhang Na of Women's Watch China, a women's legal aid NGO in Beijing, is not pleased and said, "Miss World hurts equality for women in China."

Although the new Miss World is an active athlete and college graduate, Zhang finds the message behind pageants to be troubling.

"This competition may make some people think [that] beauty is everything for women. They don't consider much more," she said.

A Busy Year Ahead

Overall though, fans seem to place hope in Zhang's reign as Miss World.

Li, the Beijing salon manager, hopes "[Miss World] will use this great opportunity to help women and children everywhere, but especially here."

Miss World is already slated to visit the Caribbean, South Africa and Europe in the coming months.

"I want to be the link between the Miss World Organization and the world and to use the power and beauty to support those in need," said Zhang.

Despite her arguments against beauty pageants, Zhang Na of Women's Watch China says, "I hope she could represent [China] as goodwill ambassador."

"That will make her much more important to China."